The name refers to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Works Project Administration, the bureaucratic engine set up in 1935 to undertake extensive construction and improvement of roads, bridges, dams, and buildings while providing work for the Great Depression's vast numbers of unemployed. It was one of the New Deal's loftiest enterprises and, as a result, 116,000 buildings were erected, 78,000 bridges raised, and 651,000 miles of public roads laid down. Also included in this innovative arm of government were the Federal Arts Project, Federal Theater Project, Federal Writers' Project, and the National Youth Administration, a clear sign that, in the Thirties, the artist was an ally of progress -- not the NEA's pariah during the Reagan/Bush years.
Sad and miserable is our time when such an upstanding model of Federalism is immortalized on Washington Avenue by a restaurant/bar whose only conceivable purpose is to provide a proscenium for the loudest and sorriest spectacle to emerge since the days when Christians were fed to lions at the Colisseum. If Hurricane Andrew was a devastating example of the randomly destructive power of nature, WPA, possibly the most popular restaurant on South Beach, is a testament to the profound pretentiousness of man. You can decide which is the more welcome, or condign, as the case may be.
Despite the pervasive aura of decay -- not a cherishable attribute to dining establishments in general -- the visual impact is, initially at least, not particularly unattractive. There is a large liquor bar to the right of the entrance, a symmetrically assembled row of closely placed tables and chairs, an industrial kitchen in full view off to the left, and an imposing, populist-style mural depicting American construction workers toiling on a vague public-works project. I should mention that this artwork, painted by local artist Andrew Reid, was named "Best New Restaurant Mural" in New Times's "Best of Miami" edition earlier this year. But WPA's glories extend no further than the window dressing at a Yawheh Ben Yahweh motel.
Of all the eating or watering holes strewn across South Beach like soiled doves along Biscayne Boulevard, none can match, in sheer nightmarishness, the morbid pageantry and vile victuals served nightly at the Project. You would have to be recently flown in from the cuckoo's nest to find solace or satisfaction amidst the primal bellowing and hyper-combustibility of WPA's patrons and waiters. You would need to revisit one of Truman Capote's assaults on fading divas to encounter attitudinizing bitchiness to match WPA's service -- only without the compensatory wit and intelligence of the diminutive author at his nastiest.
After three encounters with this Fellinian night spot, however, I can say there is nothing diminutive about the ear-shattering decibels emanating from the sound system. I will not speculate or comment about the aesthetic preferences or theatrical demeanor of the DJ at the controls, though both are flamboyantly on display as you enter WPA, making it all but futile to concentrate on your dinner, your guest, or much else. Suffice to say that, as dinner entertainment, the DJ's choreographic gyrations -- almost a manner of onanistic worship -- are not appetizing.
As for cuisine, Rabelais's great Gargantua would have been sorely tested by the portions heaped upon serving trays for mass consumption at WPA. This is cheap food; it is also cheaply plentiful. Whether it is good value for the money depends on the extent to which the storm dismantled your palate along with your living room. Appetizers are presented on cyclopean platters that could feed a table of indigents at Camillus House, should they be so inclined to savor the extreme lardaciousness of WPA's fried onion rings ($3.95), fried Tex-Mex eggrolls ($5.75), fried mozzarella in marinara sauce ($5.95), or fried potato skins ($5.50). (WPA claims it uses low-cholesterol canola oil for its deep frying, so you can rest assured that these oily morsels won't send you straight to Mount Sinai for a quadruple bypass -- they just taste that way.)
If WPA were to paraphrase the motto of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, it would read like this: "Grease is good; grease works." How else to justify the five-alarm adiposity of such American classics as Buffalo chicken wings ($6.25), baby back ribs ($11.50), and the eight so-called "gourmet burgers" -- respectively listed as the burger, the WPA burger, the FDR burger, the Philly burger, the all-American burger, the New Deal burger, the Beach burger, the Tuscan burger (from $5.95 to $6.95). It's a compilation as ludicrous as the one preceding the partridge in a pear tree.
WPA's menu offers something for everyone -- and nothing at all. You would imagine a margherita ($6.95), Italy's simplest baked pizza, to be an easy dish to prepare even in these reduced circumstances. No such fortuna: the vaunted thin crust was soggier than a Bounty picker-upper after a swipe across Rosie's counter, and the topping, an indifferently doused tomato sauce of low pedigree covered with oily, separating cheese interspersed with bits of basil, indicated that if there was a legendary master cook working in that kitchen, his name was Chef Boy-ar-dee.
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For all you dieters out there, WPA also offers such calorie-counting delights as chicken stir-fry ($11.50) tossed with egg noodles and Oriental seasonings, grilled tuna ($12.95), and a variety of mountainous salads ($3.95 to $7.95), none especially slenderizing, but healthy enough so long as you avoid the dressings (tarragon vinaigrette, creamy mustard, blue cheese, and celery seed), whose viscosity harks back to the lubricating leftovers everywhere you look. Fasting may be a better alternative.
To end the meal on a happy note, WPA's desserts are not homemade. But through some curious alchemy, the management has artfully contrived to find three sweets in the nether recesses of the earth -- a brownie sundae ($4.50), chocolate layer cake, and black bottom cheesecake (both $4.25) -- that cap the distinction of WPA's culinary feat like a crown, even if it is a crown of thorns. According to the delivery menu -- yes, WPA delivers! -- "whole cakes are available for special occasions."
Try one -- the next time someone in your family dies.
WPA 685 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 534-1684. Open Monday -- Thursday from 5:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., Friday from 5:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m., Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.